I am on a small personal crusade to ensure that “transformative” does not become the new “authentic.” I gather that, at this point, “authentic” has been a buzzword for so long that we are yearning for something new to talk about. But I would argue that “transformative” isn’t quite it.
The desire for authenticity was, to my mind, a major shift in the zeitgeist that began decades ago, driven by a major boom in global travel that made our consumers, particularly at the high end of the market, better travelled than ever before. As they became more worldly, in the literal sense, they not only became savvier consumers generally, but they became more comfortable with difference, and more comfortable with stepping out of their comfort zone. Too much of luxury travel, for too long, and especially in the developing world, was about the packaging of experience and the creation of a bubble for these travellers that was meant to make them feel secure. Over time, people didn’t so much need or want the bubble. What they wanted was the opportunity to get closer to what was real: they wanted to meet the locals, and eat their food, see the good and the bad. They wanted to feel the place. They wanted to understand.
And so it was important for us all to embrace authenticity as an idea, to jettison some of the longstanding conventions of high-end travel and think about ways that we could disintermediate place and culture for travellers. As much as I hear groans every time someone says “authenticity” these days, I still think it’s the most important trend in consumer travel preferences of our time.
So is “transformative” a thing? Yes, most definitely. We live in a time when all sorts of issues—from the fragility of our planet to the crudeness of public discourse to the pressures created by intensive workplace cultures and always-on technology—have us thinking a great deal about the importance of wellbeing and deeper meaning in our lives. And people are, I think, increasingly aware of the power that travel has to feed those things. Travellers are indeed getting on planes to go places where they can practice mindfulness or learn to sleep better or quit smoking. They are walking the Camino de Santiago to find themselves. They are quitting their jobs to travel around the world for a year and reinvent their lives.
But I would suggest it is still a relatively small number of people who are consciously traveling specifically to seek some form of personal transformation. Most of what is transformative in travel, as I see it, happens by accident, in small, serendipitous moments. When you watch a sunrise with your spouse and realize you haven’t simply sat silent with each other observing a moment of beauty in a long time. Or when you and your child see a baby impala being born on safari and you can tell her eyes are opening to wonders of nature and science. Or when wading in a stream and catching a trout fills you with a sense of accomplishment much greater than you felt back in the office building that spreadsheet.
My concern with “transformative” is that it injects a kind of seriousness, of worthiness, into travel that could lead us to forget a fundamental truth: that most people travel to have fun. Whether we’re doing it alone or with friends or family or with the loves of our lives (or of right now), traveling first and foremost gives us the time and mental space to leave some of the cares of our daily lives behind. We get to live for a few days on schedules not dictated by our Outlook calendars and according to the guiding principle of satisfying our own desires. We get to go out exploring or just curl up and read a book. However we choose to define our enjoyment, the point is that’s what we are doing: enjoying ourselves.
Somewhere in there, something transformative might happen. Or it might not. I would not suggest anyone ignore this desire for deeper meaning that travellers today have. It is real, and there is a genuine opportunity to create special experiences or facilitate meaningful moments. But as we do that, my plea is that we not forget the pleasure principle. Travel in and of itself is transformational—the act of going new places opens you up and helps you to see the world with new eyes, and over time it changes you—but most of the time that’s not really the point. Fundamentally we succeed when we simply help people have the time of the lives, when they laugh out loud or gasp with astonishment or jump for joy.
Nathan Lump is Editor in Chief of Travel + Leisure and Editorial Director, Luxury & Lifestyle Group at Time Inc. Meet Nathan Lump and the T+L team all this week at ILTM in Cannes.